Album Review: Tame Impala – Innerspeaker

[Modular; 2010]

I’ve always heard people describe Innerspeaker, the debut LP from mind-altering Australian rockers Tame Impala, by comparing it with something else. To be sure, when this many references inform an album, you’re bound to pick up on at least some of them: you’ve got the crunchy Amnesiac-era Radiohead on “Desire Be Desire Go,” the Sgt. Pepper’s pep of “Solitude is Bliss” (on which singer Kevin Parker’s vocal similarity to John Lennon is most apparent), the two-chord garage rock beginning of “Lucidity,” the prog-rock leanings of early Yes, the Pink Floyd spoken-word backdrops in and the thrusting arena-rock beats and power chords “I Don’t Really Mind,” just to name a few. Indeed, every song on Innerspeaker can be appreciated as a reflection on the drifting transformations of latter-twentieth-century classic rock, from the Beatles to Bear Quartet.

But what impresses me most here is the album’s ability to occupy its own expansive, singular place. You really can judge this album by its trippy cover, which takes a fairly common landscape portrait and morphs it only slightly, stretching the sky to a distant horizon and looping the forest scene below in an act of self-aware photoshopping. The psychedelic visual tropes on display suggest the spaced-out guitar jams and harmonized vocal reverb of classic psych-rock, but the eighties-sci-fi font hints at a more synthesized and contemporary sound. On Innerspeaker, these styles work together to create a unique sound unafraid to come into its own beneath a canopy of influences.

The spacious hooks found in songs like opener “It Is Not Meant to Be” would surely make for a delightful concert experience; but as with most psychedelic bands worth their weight in hash, Tame Impala’s music is meant for the solitary experience of headphone listening. Only then do they hazy layers of music and rhythm come into focus: cymbal peals, blissed-out vocal effects, mod-rock organs, and even delicately applied Sega Genesis noises (on tracks like “Expectations,” “Bold Arrow of Time,” and “I Don’t Really Mind”) all elevate this album beyond the dismissive “guitar-driven” label.

Singer/songwriter Kevin Parker revels in this cornucopia of sound—it’s the antidote to the social alienation he describes in his lyrics. Among other things, this album is an ode to solitude, most clearly evidenced in the appropriately-titled “Solitude is Bliss,” on which he admits that “movement doesn’t flow quite like it does when I’m alone.” On “It Is Not Meant To Be,” Parker encounters the girl of his dreams; rather than be with her, however, “in all honesty” he’s “happy just to watch her move.” On “Desire Be Desire Go,” he asks the classic recluse’s question: “Dare I face the real world?” On “Expectations,” Parker is his most devastatingly honest when he dreams that he will “escape. I’ll never ever have to see another disappointed face, no one to please. Every now and then, it feels like in all of the universe, there is nobody for me.” But the riff that follows these lines is far from sad—it’s the subtly shifting, mechanically beckoning sound of someone happily zoning out.

The melodies on Innerspeaker capture the lyrics’ sense of detachment. Parker isn’t lonely, because loneliness implies dissatisfaction. And unlike, say, Syd Barrett, Parker’s isolation isn’t the result of mental deterioration; he may be wary of social contact, but he builds up no walls to keep people out. The spirit of the album is one of someone discovering the depths of his senses, of someone wandering through a record shop and trying the different genres on, mixing and matching styles as though he were modeling clothing. But nothing ever clashes; the varied elements of these songs don’t compete but rather harmonize, working together to emanate an effortless, dreamlike vibe, a “chill” record if ever there was one. The end product is a work that reveals both musical knowledge on the part of its creators as well as Parker’s predilection for time spent alone. Of course, he’s only alone in relation to other people; music this rich in detail and polyphony can only come from people who see themselves as small parts of an infinitely exotic and wonderful environment—people who actually never feel forsaken. Innerspeaker celebrates, above all else, itself. And it has every right to.